Isolated rhinos in fragmented Sabahan forests will be captured and placed in a new rhino sanctuary in a last bid to multiply their numbers.
Article by Michael Cheang, The Star, August 18 2009
AS you head into Tabin Wildlife Reserve, there is a massive tree that stands tall and proud beside the road. The tallest tree in the reserve, it seems to stand guard against the advancing hoard of oil palm trees across the road that also serves as the border between protected and developed land.
Tabin Wildlife Reserve is in need of such guardians, symbolic or otherwise. Located 48km from Lahat Datu in south-east Sabah and spanning 120,500ha of the Dent peninsula that forms the northern headland of Darvel Bay, it is one of the largest remaining protected wildlife reserves in the country; and crucially, the last major stronghold of the Bornean rhinoceros (Dicerorhinus sumatrensis harrissoni).
The Bornean rhino is a sub-species of the Asian two-horned rhinoceros, more commonly known as the Sumatran rhino. It is also the most endangered species in Malaysia, and will probably go extinct if there is no active human intervention, according to Junaidi Payne of WWF and Borneo Rhinoceros Alliance (Bora). Bora is a non-profit organisation and a joint effort between government and non-governmental groups that focus specifically on saving the rhino in Malaysia.
“In the past, rhinos were threatened by poaching, loss of habitat and so on. But now they are mostly threatened by the simple fact that there just aren’t enough of them around in one place anymore,” said Payne. “Tabin is the only place left in Malaysia where there is hope of saving the rhino because there are a few breeding individuals and we know the habitat is good because historically they were here.”
It is estimated that only 30 to 40 Bornean rhinos remain in Sabah, with the last survey in 2006 locating at least 13 individuals within Tabin. Consisting mostly of secondary regenerated forest (the area was heavily logged in the 1970s and 80s), Tabin has been a secure wildlife reserve for the past 25 years. It is categorised as a Class Seven forest reserve in Sabah – meaning its primary purpose is to conserve wildlife, and the forest cannot be logged anymore. It is also in no danger from being encroached upon by the surrounding oil palm estates.
As such, it is only fitting that Tabin was chosen to be the site of a new (and some say, final) hope for the Bornean rhino – the 4,500ha Borneo Rhinoceros Sanctuary (BRS) where a small population of the animal will be left to roam free in the hope that they will mate and breed.
The initiative is jointly set up by Sime Darby Foundation and the Sabah Government. Foundation chairman Tun Musa Hitam and State Wildlife Department Director Datuk Laurentius Ambu signed an agreement on the initiative on June 30 at the Tabin Wildlife Resort located inside the reserve.
According to Musa, the project is part of Sime’s Big 9 campaign to protect nine endangered Malaysian animals – the Sumatran rhino, orang utan, hornbill, sun bear, banteng (wild cattle), clouded leopard, pygmy elephant, proboscis monkey and the Malayan tiger, all of which (with the exception of the tiger) can be found in Tabin. Apart from the rhino reserve in Tabin, the foundation has funded the Malaysian Nature Society conservation project on the plain-pouched hornbill in Belum-Temenggor forest in Perak.
“We are providing RM7.3mil, including RM5mil for the infrastructure, to build the 4,500ha sanctuary for the rhinos in Tabin,” Musa said, adding that the funding will continue for three years until 2012.
A bulk of the funding will go towards upgrading existing infrastructure like volunteers’ living quarters and roads, as well as encircling the sanctuary with an electrified fence, which will make it the first such project involving a large fenced up area in a tropical rainforest.
The sanctuary is also unique in the sense that it is a “hands-off breeding programme.” Learning from the painful lessons of past rhino captive breeding programmes in Malaysia where most of the animals died in captivity, the rhinos in the Tabin sanctuary will be a confined area and it is hoped that nature will then take its course.
However, this does not mean that all the remaining rhinos in Sabah will be herded up into the area to breed. Payne said wild rhinos that are already within Tabin wildlife reserve would be left alone. What the sanctuary is setting out to do is to capture “doomed” rhinos in isolated forests all over Sabah, and put them in the sanctuary. .
“There are pockets of forests all over Sabah where individual rhinos are living with no hope of ever meeting a mate and they will never contribute to the species’ survival. The sanctuary aims to bring these so-called ‘doomed rhinos’ together in the hope that they might mate,” said Payne.
The sanctuary already has its first resident – a mature bull called Tam, who was found wandering around an oil palm plantation 48km from Tabin last August.
“We found Tam in an oil palm plantation, and monitored him for two weeks until it was apparent that he did not want to go back to the forest. No one really knows why. The feeling is that he was injured by a trap in the forest. Finally, the Wildlife Department decided to catch it and bring it here instead,” said Payne.
Tam was put in a 2,500ha fenced area where he is free to roam. There is also a makeshift paddock in the area where Tam is fed and where volunteers conduct medical check-ups on him. These are just temporary lodgings for Tam though. Once the sanctuary is ready (hopefully in a year’s time), he will be put there to mingle with the other rhinos to be captured.
“We are targeting to catch another four or five other rhinos, in the next few years,” said Payne.
He reckons that with funding from Sime for at least three years, the sanctuary has a chance to work. However, the success or failure of the initiative may not be known for at least 10 years or so.
“Even if we catch a small number of rhinos and they don’t breed within three or four years, it still doesn’t mean the project is not successful,” he emphasised.
While the main priority is saving the rhinos, the sanctuary initiative will also draw attention to the importance of protecting and preserving a wide array of biological resources within Tabin. These include trees and plants from primary and secondary forests, as well as a large number of animal species inhabiting the forest. Besides the rhino, it is also home to the pygmy elephant, tembadau, deer, orang utan and other primates, carnivores such as the honey bear and the rare clouded leopard, birds, reptiles, amphibians and different species of river fish.
“Hopefully, the higher profile that the project brings will help elevate the status of Tabin to the level of iconic sites such as Sipadan Island, Danum Valley or Maliau Basin,” said Payne.